Yum cha in Castlemaine

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Taste of the Orient Yum Cha House, 223 Barker Street, Castlemaine. Phone: 5470 5465

Bennie and I are up Kyneton way to spend some time on Helen’s ranch – but first we’re checking out the Castlemaine market.

I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of the fresh produce and the likes of preserves on hand but it’s mostly lunch we’re after.

The best we see is an inside crew from one of the local Chinese joints doing what looks like some pretty good yum cha.

But there’s a queue and, silly me, we haven’t got enough hard cash on us to do the job.

So it’s in to Castlemaine proper we go.

 

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We amble around the town’s CBD but find it hard to get a good reading on what’s on offer.

After years of trawling through the west, it seems we have some sort of in-built wisdom that means we can assess an eatery very quickly – good, bad, yes, no, worth a shot?

Not infallibly, mind you, but reliably so.

In Castlemaine, it feels as if every place we pass will sell us a crappy BLT and take about an hour to serve it.

Sorry, Castlemaine!

So we hit an ATM and prepare to head back to the market.

 

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Just as we are departing I see it – the very same Chinese restaurant that is doing yum cha at the market.

It’s open and, yes please, that’ll do fine!

Vegetarian dims sims (top photo, $7.50) taste OK but seem to have the consistency of sludge and thus lack the sort of textural contrasts I am expecting.

 

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Organic pork and carrot dim sims ($7.50) are juicy with porkiness and very good.

 

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Deep-fried organic tofu ($6) suffers by comparison with more highly seasoned versions we get in Malaysian establishments but is still good.

 

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Crystal vegetarian dumplings ($7.50) have all the crunch and texture I expected from our other veggie selection and are excellent.

Steamed buns are mostly Bennie’s preserve, but even I completely love the …

 

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… free-range pork $4) and …

 

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… free-range chicken and ginger ($4) items we have here!

The latter is juicy, meaty and fragrant with ginger.

Both buns are light and undoughy.

We’ve had what I consider to be a top-rate and very affordable yum cha feed.

Bennie is somewhat less impressed – is he becoming a cranky, hard-to-please teen?

And it’s true my judgment could be subjectively coloured by the lack of anything else in Castlemaine that called strongly to us and the sheer delight of finding a classy yum cha emporium right here.

Still, with just a few minor quibbles, I consider that what we eat is mostly as good as anything we’d get in Melbourne places – and a whole lot better than we’d get in many.

 

Taste of the Orient Yum Cha House on Urbanspoon

Do dogs dig dumplings?

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I Love Dumplings, 311 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 9372 5218

The restaurant also known as Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen appears to have bowed to the obvious and inevitable by embracing I Love Dumplings as its major name.

It’s also moved a few doors up the road – into what was once a bank building.

 

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On the outside, it’s drab, box-like appearance still reeks of financial sector.

 

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Inside, and after a no-doubt expensive and extensive makeover, it looks like, well, a Chinese restaurant.

With a happy, big mid–week lunch crowd in attendance and a vinegary tang in the air, it sounds and smells like one, too.

Team CTS is today two robust appetites and one not so much.

We order smartly and stick solely to dumplings – or almost – in celebration of the management’s embracing of the dumpling love mantra.

The lunch menu (see below), mind you, has a lot of very well priced and interesting non-dumpling dishes about the $10 mark that will make this a lunch hot spot for sure.

We spend about $10 per head and eat like kings.

 

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Pan-fried chicken corn dumplings ($9.80 for 15) are extreme in terms of plainness but taste beaut, the lovely chicken meat having enough corn kernels to provide flavour and texture lifts.

 

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Steamed pork and spring onion buns ($11.80 for six) are, we are assured, quite different from the regular BBQ pork buns.

We don’t find that to be the case, but they’re a hit anyway – quite delicate, and with enough moistness in the filling to offset the doughy exteriors.

 

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Steamed vegetarian dumplings in Sichuan chili sauce ($9.80 for 15) are our best dish.

The soy-based, thin sauce has enough of a spice kick to make the already fab dumplings really sing.

The parcels are packed with all sorts of goodies that make the absence of any sort of animal protein an irrelevance.

Do dogs dig dumplings?

The guide dog trainers of two lovely labs that have been in the house for lunch-time assure us they would if they could!

 

I Love Dumplings on Urbanspoon

 

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Willy noodle shop

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Wok Rite Inn Noodle & Snack Bar, 5 Ferguson Street, Williamstown. Phone: 9397 4077

Wok Rite Inn has been recommended to us more than once by a regular reader whose opinions we respect very much.

The vibe, we have been told, is one of a neighbourhood noodle shop with a bit more going on than in your average such establishment.

Over two visits, we discover that’s a fair assessment.

The staff seem to be many and are obliging.

There’s basic seating both inside and out.

The menu ranges widely through Chinese, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese dishes – something that’s not always a good sign, of course.

The food we are served is adequate in an average sort of way.

If we were any of the locals we see coming and going, we’d be regulars who know exactly which of the many menu boxes get our ticks.

 

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Beef rendang with rice ($14.50) is rather good.

It’s on the sweet side and (unsurprisingly) mildly spiced, but there’s a heap of good, well-cooked beef.

And the generous flourish of snow peas and broccoli is appreciated.

 

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The basic curry laksa ($13.5) appears to be not made from scratch – but I’m OK with that.

I’ve had worse at supposedly specialist Malaysian places in the west.

I like the tofu and vegetable components.

But the main protein hit comes from far too much roast pork of a thick and rather rubbery variety.

 

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There’s plenty of that pork in the kwai teow ($13.50), too, though not so much as to deliver imbalance.

Bennie likes it even if he fails to finish it off – the serves here, it must be said, are of a very generous nature.

 

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I’m told the beef curry puffs are made in-house but that my vegetable rendition is not.

I’m fine with that, too.

I suspect that’s the case with the likes of curry puff and samosas at more places across the west than most of us might suspect – especially at the lower end of the price spectrum.

What I am not fine with is the fact my fried parcel is stone cold in the middle.

A perfectly cooked replacement, brought with an apologetic smile, tastes just right.

Check out the Wok Rite Inn website here.

 

Wok Rite In Noodle & Snack Bar on Urbanspoon

 

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Wise guys do dumplings

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wise7
Dumplings Wise, Watergardens (Coles end). Phone: 9449 9332

There are some damn fine places to get dumplings in the western suburbs, but they’re not exactly thick on the ground in general or in any particular neighbourhood in particular.

So the opening of such a venue in a shopping centre is most certainly noteworthy and blog-worthy, even if it is a pretty fair haul from Yarraville to Taylors Lakes!

We wonder if this joint has anything in common with a certain Highpoint business beyond a similar name and, going by online evidence, appearance.

The answer is: No.

We’re told Dumplings Wise is a completely separate operation.

Moreover, while the menu (see below) is much as expected, it has no such items as mee goreng or laksa.

We reckon the fact this place is happy being Chinese and not trying to be Malaysian as well is probably a good sign.

 

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The place is done out in a mix of Asian and standard fast-food restaurant styles.

We like the abacus!

It’s a matter of make your choices, go to the front counter, then pay and order.

We find the staff to be very professional, cheerful and good.

We’re a hungry group and order widely.

Our conclusion?

Dumplings Wise is a hot spot given the location, price, service and scarcity of dumplings in the far-flung outer west.

We nail far more hits than misses.

We advise homing in on the dumplings, as those we eat are excellent and those we see being consumed around us appear to be equally fine.

 

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Sichuan noodles with minced pork and peanut sauce is the familiar with a twist.

We do expect the mild spiciness (we know well by now that a two-chilli rating in a shopping centre food is hardly cause for alarm bells), tangy sauce, good noodles, minced pork, mushrooms and tiny tofu cubes.

But the peanutty factor gives this dish a flavour whack quite different from the many other different versions we’ve had of this dish.

We wish we’d gone for the more modestly sized $6.90 version as the $9.80 rendition is huge.

 

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We order the steamed BBQ pork buns (two for $2.50) for Bennie, who a. skipped breakfast; and b. is subsequently very hungry.

He likes them plenty. They taste light and fresh to me, but they’re “not really my thing”.

 

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Steamed vegetables dumplings (four for $6) present as rather grey and drab.

But the innards do the biz, being a tasty mix of tofu, mushrooms, carrot and (maybe) water chestnut and bamboo shoot, all elements finely diced.

 

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Pork dumplings in hot chilli sauce ($10 for 15) is both the best value and best tasting of our lunch selections.

This is a 10/10 dish for me – to my mind it’s as good as anything you’ll get at any of the more fabled dumpling joints in Melbourne.

The saucy soup in which the dumplings swim is more soy than chilli, but it turns out to be just the right kind tangy dressing the dumplings require.

The pork parcels themselves are top notch – fresh, slippery, hot and with tender but meaty piggy fillings.

 

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Steamed baby broccoli with oyster sauce ($8.80) is something of a disappointment.

We appreciate having some greenery to go with the more weighty and meat-laden parts of our meal, and the heads are fine.

But the dish is barely warm and the stalks are tough and bitter.

 

Dumpling Wise on Urbanspoon

 

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Yumminess on Alfrieda

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phi14
Phi Phi Vietnamese & Chinese Restaurant, 28 Alfrieda Street, St Albans. Phone: 9366 5686

We’ve been here before … 28 Alfrieda Street, that is.

First as Just Good Food, then as Phuong Thao – and there was another incarnation in there along the way as well.

Such is the ebb and flow, the come and go of our foodie precincts.

The latest establishment to grace 28 Alfrieda is Phi Phi – and based on a beaut Sunday dinner, we think that is a fine thing indeed.

There’s a new fit-out and the staff are trying really hard and with much graciousness.

Phi Phi is a Vietnamese/Chinese place with a wide-ranging menu that takes in all you’d expect – seafood-based banquets right through to the most humble noodles and rice dishes.

The big ovens are still out back, so you can count on the roast meats still being the goods.

 

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When we visit, the place is fetchingly busy.

And we can think of no better testament to the place’s worthiness than the way complementary bowls of chicken soup are dispensed.

For two of our mains, we would have been very disappointed had we not got soup.

For another, it’s arrival was a pleasant surprise.

For the fourth, the chook soup addition was a shock and a big plus – now that’s class!

We don’t push any envelopes with what we order, but everything we have is good or much better.

 

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Hot and sour soup ($5) is far from being the hottest or sourest I’ve enjoyed, but it IS among the very best, so chock-full of pork, baby prawns, tofu, mushrooms and other goodies is it.

It’s fantastic!

 

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Soft-shell crab rice paper rolls ($7) and …

 

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… sashimi salmon rice paper rolls ($7) are both lovely, high-quality treats.

The crab taste, the fried-and-fishy tang of which can be off-putting to some, is nicely muted by the other protagonists.

In both cases, the rolls deliver fresh takes on the usual but nevertheless fit right in to the rice paper roll tradition.

 

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Fried won tons ($5) are just so good!

Obviously house-made, they are grease-free and plump with nicely seasoned minced pork.

 

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Hainanese chicken claypot ($11.50) comes with heaps of bok choy.

Its recipient is delighted to find the bottom rice has the desired, browned crunchiness!

 

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Of course, ordering Hainanese chicken rice in a non-Malaysian eatery is always a bit of punt – but can lead to nice twists.

In this case, the Phi Phi version ($10) comes with some non-Malay greenery.

The rice is good, too.

And as with the claypot rendition, the chicken is superb – beautifully cooked and tender, despite some of the pieces being quite dense, and expertly boned with not a deadly shard of nastiness in sight.

That I really, truly appreciate.

 

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Bennie goes for the salt and pepper pork ribs on tomato rice ($11), mainly because the lad is currently in a place where fried = good.

It’s all very nice, though I’ve had versions – be they pork, chicken, tofu, whatever – that have had more arresting zing in the seasoning department.

 

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One of our party goes real old-school by ordering beef with black bean sauce on rice ($12).

And why not?

We’re loving our dinner so much we confidently expect this, too, to be very good.

And so it is.

Like all the aforementioned mains, this comes with a bowl of chicken soup – not a usual move for a black bean-sauced dish and worthy of a “Bravo”!

 

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As we muse on our wonderful dinner, we count ourselves lucky that the food we like most is so affordable.

Our meal – including a can of soft drink and a durian smoothie – clocks in at a stupendously good $74 for four.

And that, in turn, has us reflecting on the fact our newly refurbished Yarraville pub has on its menu Singapore noodles priced at $26.

Yikes!

We’ll take Phi Phi any day.

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On an earlier reconnaissance visit, yours truly also went old-school with a serve of roast duck and soya chicken on rice.

 

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This $12 outing was also most enjoyable.

The meats were tender and expertly chopped, and the presence of not just soup but also ginger/garlic/oil mash and pickles made the dish memorable.

 

Phi Phi Vietnamese & Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

 

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China Bar 24 hours a day

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chin8

 

China Bar, 257-259 Swanston Street, Melbourne. Phone: 9639 6988

Because of a pre-fatherhood, pre-western sojourn spent living in the CBD, the Russell Street China Bar became a much-loved and endlessly reliable and enjoyable eating place.

So it’s a little difficult for me to think of China Bar as a franchise chain.

But there it is, right on the group’s website.

They’re everywhere.

And – this I did not know – the group also encompasses Claypot King and Dessert Story.

Not that that should come as any surprise – there is a marked similarity in branding.

And another surprise – according to Urbanspoon, the Russell Street branch (the original?) is “closed temporarily”.

We’re back from our Friday CBD adventure, so have no way of knowing what this means.

Maybe a short-lived closure to enable a no-doubt badly needed tart-up?

No matter … after witnessing the Melbourne Storm down the Brisbane Broncos in an exciting, tough game at AAMI Park, Bennie likes the idea of trying out the newish “24-hour” China Bar.

As we amble up Swanston Street, we seem to be amidst the wind-down of the end-of-working-week crowd, with the night-owl activity soon to be ramping up.

 

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Inside China Bar, all is China Bar – even if the physical surroundings themselves are different.

Many people are eating, staff members – some of them with familiar faces – are bustling about.

That bustle and buzz is a big part of the attraction, as it is just about anywhere in Chinatown.

There seems to be more customers than I would normally expect chowing down on dumplings and smaller dishes.

But we go with the familiar.

 

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My Hainanese crispy chicken rice costs $12.90 and stacks up thusly …

Rice – good chicken flavour but it’s packed so tightly into the bowl that it has become almost a like a pudding that needs carving.

Soup – warm only but good

Chilli, ginger/garlic/oil and cucumber accessories – oh dear, simply not enough zing.

Chicken – very crispy, very good, with a serving size that (as is so often the case) eats bigger than it appears. I could live without the gooey sauce underneath.

So … a little underwhelming considering the high esteem in which I hold the Russell Street branch, which I last visited late at night just a few months’ back.

Does this meal diminish my warm feelings for China Bar?

Just a little …

 

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Bennie is quite smug in his certainty that his “seasoning salt spare ribs with rice” ($12.90) is the superior choice of our two meals.

He may be right.

I don’t try the chicken but the accompanying jumble of onion, capsicum and spices tastes OK.

But when asked if what he’s eating is as good as the same dish at a certain Chinese joint in Sunshine, his answer is: “No!”

 

China Bar on Urbanspoon

 

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CTS Feast No.9: Xiang Yang Cheng – the wrap

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CTS Feast No.9: Xiang Yang Cheng, 672 Mount Alexander Road, Moonee Ponds. Phone: 9372 7128

Our CTS Feast at Xiang Yang Cheng was a truly memorable occasion.

I remain surprised that only just half over the allocated seating was booked – this was and is, it seems to be, just the kind of food that is ideal for such an event.

No matter … no matter at all.

Because those of us who did indulge had a thoroughly grand time.

And with a smaller group, it was all very relaxed and rather intimate.

I really enjoyed getting around our four tables and having chats with everyone.

 

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And that was made easier by the very nature of the food an its preparation – what may have taken a half-hour so to consume if brought plated to our tables ended up taking more than two hours of rambling indulgence.

Many thanks to the XYC staff, including Larry, Zi and Alicia, for taking such good care of us.

Thanks, also, to Nat, Marc, Paul, Marketa, Jenni, Bronwyn, Adam, Philippa, Milena, Paul, Christine, Lisa and Julian for making it.

 

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But perhaps the most thanks should go to someone who was absent.

One of my first contacts at XYC was Peggy.

Peggy is off being a new mum but it was she who devised the broad and representative menu selections that graced each of our tables.

A lot of thought obviously went into it – and thus was vindicated my decision to leave our meal up to the staff and not bother cherry-picking it myself.

Wow!

What a spread we had.

 

Xiang Yang Cheng on Urbanspoon

 

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